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Congress overturns military COVID vax mandate in defense budget bill

Tech. Sgt. Joseph Anthony holds a COVID-19 vaccine vial at the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania, Feb. 4, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joshua J. Seybert)
December 08, 2022

Language to overturn the military-wide COVID-19 vaccine mandate has been added to the 2023 defense budget bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The language would require the military to rescind the COVID-19 vaccine requirements for U.S. service members within 30 days of the NDAA being signed into law.

On Wednesday, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) — a vocal opponent of the military’s requirement — tweeted, “The military COVID vaccine mandate will end! Page 407 & 408 of NDAA text just released. Next steps: end all COVID vax mandates (healthcare workers and foreign visitors), and reinstate all members of military wrongfully terminated due to vax.”

The language in the NDAA states: “Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense shall rescind the mandate that members of the Armed Forces be vaccinated against COVID-19 pursuant to the memorandum dated August 24, 2021, regarding ‘Mandatory Coronavirus Disease 2019 Vaccination of Department of Defense Service Members.'”

The language added in the NDAA is different from an amendment some Republican senators are pursuing that would also reinstate U.S. troops who were discharged over the mandate — with their backpay. Last week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and 12 other Republican Senators sent a letter to the Republican senate leadership announcing their opposition to passing the NDAA on a cloture vote unless the senate votes on the amendment.

Paul said 20 Republicans have voiced support for the amendment, but Republicans would need 41 votes to block a cloture vote. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-KY) did not respond to repeated American Military News request for comments on if he’d support the amendment to reinstate troops discharged over the vaccine mandate.

More than 7,000 U.S. service members have been separated over the military vaccine mandate. In April, Military Times reported about 70 percent of troops being separated over the vaccine mandate were given a general discharge under honorable conditions, which entitles service members to most veterans benefits, but not education benefits, according to Nolo.

NBC reported military leaders are actively discussing whether troops separated over the vaccine mandate would be allowed to rejoin. The military leaders reportedly said cases would likely be handled on a case-by-case basis, but that troops separated with a general discharge under honorable conditions or better may be able to return to service.

Joe Biden’s administration has not indicated it will veto the NDAA if it’s passed with the language to rescind the mandate. Still, White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesman John Kirby called the vaccine mandate rescission language a “mistake.”

Military leaders have raised concerns that removing the vaccine mandate would harm the military’s readiness. One senior defense official even told the Washington Post that when service members inevitably “get sick, and if they should die, it will be on the Republicans who insisted upon this.”

The Department of Defense has recorded 96 COVID-19 deaths across all branches of the military since the virus arrived in the U.S. in 2020.

In a Reagan Defense Forum panel discussion this weekend, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger said the COVID-19 vaccine mandate is “tied to readiness” of U.S. troops but said the mandate was impacting recruiting.

During that same panel discussion, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) said he believed the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate was lawful, but “I’m not quite there on the readiness argument.”

Gallagher also raised the concern that the number of troops discharged over the vaccine mandate is the equivalent of about two Army brigades at a time when the military struggled to meet many of its 2022 fiscal year recruiting goals.